Sunday, October 16, 2011

Got a Smile in my Heart and it Spread to my Face

This week’s spotlight band has been on my radar for a long time, actually; but only recently did I break down, purchase their album and fall in love. I can’t tell you exactly when I first heard of Vampire Weekend because they seemed to blow up everywhere all at once, and now they're a college/young adult musical staple. If you know only one of their songs, it’s probably “Holiday” featured on a Christmas-time Target commercial, if I remember correctly, and frequently heard over the Muzak of Starbucks, Abercrombie and other such fine commercial establishments. It may have been this association with the college crowd (especially the fraternity scene) and the commercial explosion of the band that gave me such cause for hesitation, but I tell you what: they are a quirky bundle of fun, and that is not limited only to clean, drunken white collar delinquents as I had previously thought. Their songs are ridiculous with lots of “bloops and bleeps” in the background, as one of my friends complains and have predictable, but peppy beats. I never really know exactly what they’re saying in their lyrics; it could be Spanish for all I can tell, but I never really care either. It’s just plain fun, guaranteed to put a smile on your face. I took them with me when I ran my first half-marathon the other weekend (like how I just dropped that in there?) and if asked, I would give them a good deal of the credit for my successful crossing of the finish line.

Despite the mumbling and generally carefree spirit of their music, a song called "Oxford Comma" from their self-titled debut album, betrays the band's Ivy League roots. The four members of Vampire Weekend met and formed the group in 2006 while students at Columbia University. Things progressed rather speedily after that, signing to a label in 2007, releasing their first album in 2008 and a chart-topping follow-up album in 2010.

I’m listening to their second album Contra right now, as there’s a great fall rain happening outside; and the album still seems appropriate. I almost feel like there’s a private joke between my iPod and me that we are not letting the weather in on. There’s a smile growing warm in my heart and it’s thanks to Vampire Weekend. Have a long drive ahead? Not looking forward to a weekend of cleaning the house? Need to do some working out? Take these kids with you.

Photo credit: Søren Solkær Starbird

Thursday, September 29, 2011

To Remind and To Remember

*Preface: My apologies for missing last week. The concert season has started for me, requiring the occasional Thursday evening rehearsal. This makes for unusual/impossible office hours.*

I have three really fantastic roommates here in Believeland. Two of them just got married this summer and moved into our humble abode. Let's talk about crazy: Newlywed couple + 2 single post-grad school girls = recipe for disaster and epic b-list sitcom. Add some Jesus to that, and specify the people involved and you have a recipe for hilarity and grace. It is so wonderful to live here. The other swf in my house does not always share my taste in music, but J & A frequently do. Today's post is dedicated to them because they love this week's band, and although I had been aware of Sleeping At Last for several years (since junior year of college or so?), they've gone relatively unnoticed, unlistened to and unappreciated. As prone as I am to a lifestyle of hermitage and solitude (as an awkward, but important conversation with a formerly-good-friend has just addressed), it turns out that Life was meant to be lived with people and is always better (though also more difficult) with them in it. We can't all be aware of everything all the time. Sometimes we need each other to point out things that are good or beautiful in the every day. Sometimes we need to be the ones to point them out.

Sleeping At Last is actually just one man named Ryan O'Neal. The intimacy and oftentimes spacious arrangements in the music betrays the one-manness (I think I just made up that word) of the band, but I was still surprised to learn that the powerful song-writing and poetic lyrics come from just one head. Sleeping At Last hasn't always been just one man; it started as a full-sized garage band out of the greater Chicagoland area and has organically transitioned into O'Neal's solo project. You can more of the story here.

Sleeping At Last's most ambitious project to date, the "Yearbook" EP Project has just this month come to a close. O'Neal challenged himself to continuously write music for an entire year - enough to produce three new songs every month. And he was serious enough about his challenge to put his money where his mouth was - inviting listeners to subscribe to the Project and promising to deliver three complete new tunes at the dawn of each new calendar month. Though Sleeping At Last has become a solo project, O'Neal did not endeavor to complete the project all on his own - he had frequent guest collaborators from Jon Foreman (of Switchfoot - who just released their newest album this week - and Fiction Family) to Katie Herzig (who also just released a new album) to Paul Von Mertens (Wilco). Delivering even more than his promise, O'Neal collaborated with visual artist Geoff Benzing to pair gorgeous paintings as cover art for each EP. The whole project is a labor of beauty: beautiful sounds and beautiful visuals. It would be similar to me deciding to learn and record all the Barrett Grand Etudes (*Nerd alert*) while in conservatory and then ask one of my colleagues in the school of visual art or art & design to paint accompanying scenes, or one of my ballet friends to choreograph an accompanying dance in the style of each etude, or a poet friend write some lyrics for them. It was this kind of collaboration of the arts that has always intrigued me about art school and the idea of arts colonies and artist fellowships. I also think it's this kind of collaboration that, when invested in, will keep the arts alive in our culture. The arts I think will always have a way of being relevant and surviving, but I think, especially in an arts-hostile culture like the 'States. But here's the difference between Sleeping At Last's "Yearbook" project and my Barrett etude senior thesis: People want to hear his. It is high quality and aurally palatable.

O'Neal's music is piano driven with soaring vocals whose tonal quality is simultaneously deep and floaty. It is a little bit of an acquired taste - in a way not dissimilar to Radiohead. His voice is sometimes reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright in the lilting lines and chosen harmonies. The lyrics are poetic and the orchestrations are oftentimes quirky and sometimes cinematic. I liken Sleeping At Last to a forward moving, hopeful version of The Album Leaf. This is beautiful music for: rainy nights when your heart is content to beat to the rhythm of the raindrops, autumn afternoons or snowy mornings - apparently times involving something falling from the sky. Sleeping At Last might just fall into that category of elusive music that you listen to when you need to be reminded that sometimes Life really is just beautiful, even if difficult.

I chose this video because this is the song to which A, one of my roommates, walked down the aisle. It's beautiful, just like her.
If you want to check out a couple other songs I like, look for "All This to Say" and "Unmade" specifically.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Serendipitous Sweethearts

Gotta' send a shout out to my friend James for this week's post. He's the one who really got me into She & Him. I had heard of them from RELEVANT magazine (their July/Aug '09 issue) and their podcast, but it was James who really made me listen to them. So, thanks James. My world ... and now your world, dear readers, is a little bit brighter.

You know Zooey Deschanel? Buddy the Elf/Will Ferrel's love interest in the new classic Christmas movie Elf? And you know that scene where she's singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and Buddy joins her? Well, that's really her singing! Amazing! And even more amazingly, she's recorded some non-Christmas music on actual albums so you can enjoy her dulcet tones and pick-me-up pep shamelessly, year-round. (Though I myself am not one to hang my head at playing a little Christmas music in or around July.)
Deschanel teamed up with M. Ward to form a serendipitous super-duo called She & Him whose upbeat songs with guitar, tambourine, hand-claps and old school background vocals is reminiscent of the long-gone torch singer, crooner or Carpenter days. Her voice even sounds a little like Karen Carpenter's, but a little bit more vibrant, and just as sweet as her face. The sound is not terribly complex, but chock full of positive energy and a nearly-lost art form of happiness.

You've probably heard a few of their tracks in various movie soundtracks, commercials or scoring your shopping trips to places like Target or Kohl's. Nevertheless, it's always a treat. Their sound is approachable and accessible and sure to bring a smile to your face.

This has been a tough week for me and smiling/happiness has been difficult, but I can't help myself when I listen to these tracks from She & Him. So great!

I know the video is a little dark, but I just love this song.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ben Sol'ful'ee

We begin again with a note of celebration: I have now officially lived in Cleveland for one year! Labor day marked one year exactly that I worked my job and lived in my house of joy! Hooray! (By the way, that 'note' pun was totally unintentional. Love it? I do!)

This week's featured artist is one I have wanted to introduce you to over and over again, but the time just hasn't been quite right. And honestly, I'm not sure that the time is right now either, but I just can't wait any longer. I simply MUST tell you about him.
His name is Ben Sollee and he is actually a classically-trained, "genre-bending" cellist from Kentucky. I don't know how all of these things happen at once in one person, but I am pretty certain he's the only one of his kind. Probably because he defines his kind. I'd also like to mention he toured with Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck as part of The Sparrow Quartet. This kid is awesome. Read his bio.

What his music sounds like: Jack Johnson, John Mayer, John Legend, Bob Marley, Ray LaMontagne, a one-man-tongue-in-cheek-Avett-upbeat-black-sheep-brothers, Sufjan Stevens, Abigail Washburn ...
He's got vibraphone, bells, violin, cello, drumset, trumpet, harp, mouth harp, fiddle, guitar, banjo ... it's ridiculous. He's ridiculous. Seriously. Seriously ridiculous.

His lyrics are not natural or smooth, sometimes the rhymes are forced (or he gives up on the rhymes completely), but they are honest, transparent, poignant and true. No poetry mostly, but very good prose. On the same album he's ask you if you're "strong enough bend" and then ask you to "bury [him] with [his] car." And as he's grown as an artist [and human] his songwriting has also matured.

Especially in this politically-charged atmosphere (I type this while Obama's speech is happening on t.v.) his song "A Few Honest Words" is a sincere charge from a generation asking politicians to speak straight about the current state of things and to make legitimate, effective decisions. Listen to it and tell me he shouldn't flash-mob all the political conventions and campaigns with it.

If you're gonna' lead my country
If you're gonna' say it's free
Gonna' need a little honesty//
Just a few honest words
It shouldn't be that hard
Just a few honest words
Is all I need//
I don't need no handshake
Or firm look in the eye
Don't tell me what you think I ought to hear ....

I wonder what would happen if someone like Passion Pit did a remix of it actually ... hmmm.
*Edit: After a little bit of research, I found someone actually did remix the song with quotes from Obama's campaign. But I won't give you links, because I don't think they're that good. Passion Pit could do a better job.*

There is an ease and simplicity in his music which would seem to be influenced by his Kentucky roots and an earnestness and frankness in many of his lyrics betraying an East Coast/artistic influence. And he manages the natural conflict of the two cultures and lifestyles so smoothly, probably because they are legitimately, peaceably dwelling within him.

Evenings when you feel generally content, a good Saturday morning cleaning, or a Sunday morning spent sitting is probably when you want most to listen to this music. Take him camping with you. Buy all his albums. Every time I pull him up on my iPod again, I regret not having bought all of his albums at once.

This video is long, as it's the entire NPR Tiny Desk concert, but this is maybe my favorite Tiny Desk they've ever done. The perfect environment/space for it.

P.S. No one comment about the hair ...

Image credit: I don't know, I swiped it from this website.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Dark, Cynical and Impossibly Honest

Most exciting things first: I found out Monday that I have been added to the music review team at Relevant Magazine! Hooray! Celebrate with me! As the oboe and I have been fighting a lot recently, I am hoping this ends up being the first step in a new direction.

Okay, let's get down to business (to defeat the Huns).

Remember last week how we talked about the Muppets and their sweet reminder in a world of cynicism, sarcasm and meanness? Well, this week we're diving straight into that cynical, sarcastic mean and rocking world of Elizabeth and the Catapult. I was first introduced to Elizabeth and the Catapult by Relevant, actually, so this fitting. I heard the song "Race You," fell in love with its youthful spirit and energy and decided I needed to buy the album. I won't say I regret purchasing the 2009 album, but that happy tune is certainly the anomaly. The rest of the album is dark and riddled with tongue-and-cheek observations on life. The title track "Taller Children" is actually an idea that continues to strike a deep chord with me, as it talks about the similarities between being a child and being an adult - that we never actually seem to grow up, only taller - but it doesn't take a light-hearted grace-filled approach to this idea. Nevertheless, I like the song and the idea ... I just try to put my own optimistic spin on it. "Momma's Boy" and "Perfectly Perfect" (from the bonus track edition of the album) are uptempo, fun standouts, in spite of their lyrics. "Momma's Boy" laments the plight of many older, single and (perhaps) slightly bitter women saying "if you want a girl to be your mother, go find another one." And "Perfectly Perfect" is a carnival ride through the paradoxes existent in our own lives with its opening line of "I'm just so perfectly perfect, except when I'm not."
The album also has its share of sweet and beautifully arranged songs. "Gold Ink" is one such with wistful lyrics "I have just begun to work my magic, but it seems as though it's lost at sea" and "Just in Time" is a sincere love song whose sound is slow and swimming, creating the feeling of being suspended in a moment of reflection.
"Hit the Wall" is a powerful Adele-esque number. And in general the whole album has a similar feel to Adele - strong and soulful. Although dark, Elizabeth and the Catapult is authentic and completely honest. She/it/they are a great addition to a music library that already contains Adele, A Fine Frenzy, Feist, Florence and the Machine or other strong female singers. The lyrics are strong poetry and the accompanying music is solid and multi-genred. But don't start with Elizabeth. She's a second or third step, rather than a first.

This video is a live performance of one of my most stand-out songs on the album, "Everybody Knows." It is soul and blues at their best. On the album, there's stomping; in the performance it's a kick-drum. The opening is stark with just the beat and the vocals: a perfect compliment to the stark lyrics. "Everybody knows that the war is over. Everybody knows that the good guys lost." It's heavy & effective.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Most Sensational, Inspirational, Celebrational, Muppetational

Tuesday marked the release of The Green Album. Let's be honest, this review is just a formality. I love the Muppets. I have always loved the Muppets. I am most definitely going to tell you to go out and buy a Muppet tribute/revival album. But when you put some of my favorite artists on the album, like OK Go or Andrew Bird or Rachel Yamagata, I am even more enthusiastically going to tell you to buy it. And yes, I did pre-order the album. And I'm proud of it.
Robin Hilton also writes a lovely review of the album on the NPR First Listen blog; with which I happen to agree a great deal.
But here is my not-even-pretending-to-be-objective view on this collaboration: Love it!
The album kicks off, and I mean really kicks, with OK Go playing The Muppet Show theme. I think the Electric Mayhem would be proud of their loud and distorted take on tune. And when I think about it, OK Go just might be the real world's Electric Mayhem. Almost. Next up is Weezer + Hayley Williams (Paramore) doing Rainbow Connection. This one is a little tricky for me. That song is a classic and much beloved to me, Kermit the Frog being my dream, er, frog and all. They do it fair justice, though. There's not much playing with the arrangement, I'm not a fan of the vocal colors, but it's still a great song. Maybe the most surprising track is The Fray singing "Mahna Mahna." I had no idea who was singing when I first heard it, and when I checked in with my iPod I was so surprised! It's hard for me to hear The Fray singing this ridiculously catchy song (over and over in my head) and then try to also hear them singing "How to Save a Life." There's an extended instrumental part in the song which doesn't make much sense if you don't also picture the sketch from the show in your head at the same time, but I have repeated this track more than once. The Alkaline Trio does a fantastic version of "Movin' Right Along" which ought to be on any mixed tape you give a friend who moves away or for any road trip. It's on this track that I start to try to picture these bands seriously entering a recording studio, which is no cheap ordeal, to record tracks from The Muppet Show. Did they start to question their legitimacy as artists? Did they have a great time? Is it a dream they've finally been given permission to live out loud and proud? American rockers My Morning Jacket perform "Our World" with which I was completely unfamiliar, but is reminiscent of John Lennon to me, actually. He's not a muppet, but he'd be proud of this one I think. Would probably have sung it with them, too. And how about the nod to the Beatles "White Album" with the Muppets "Green Album." Too much? Nay, just right. Amy Lee (from Evanescence) sings "Halfway Down the Stairs," which was originally sung by Robin, Kermit's adorable nephew (and an excellent second choice for my husband I think) if I remember correctly. Her unique ethereal voice almost keeps the innocence of Robin's, but the electronic/techno background is a little too much for me. It's daring and almost commendable, except it becomes repetetive and almost trite as the song continues. Nevertheless, this song has gotten most stuck in my head. Sondre Lerche absolutely kills "Mr. Bassman" (in a good way) and sounds a bit like Ben Sollee, whom I also love. Andrew Bird does an absolutely beautiful arrangement of "Bein' Green." The entire album is worth this track, I think. Seriously. Kermit, himself, might even try to cheer Bird up. Matt Nathanson performs "I Hope That Something Better Comes Along" with a sincerity and slight sultry flavor that makes it sound like it came from one of his own albums, not a Muppet tribute. Rachel Yamagata closes the album with "I'm Going to go Back There Someday" with background vocals that sound like Glee, but it's a sweet end to a sweet trip down memory lane as an adult.
And that's the thing. This album is almost like what it would sound like if the Muppets actually did grow up, like all the rest of us did, and if maybe life taught them the same lessons it taught all of us. And if they "got the band back together" to revisit the old days. (Which apparently they do in the new movie coming out in November. Did you catch that? NEW MUPPET MOVIE!) The Green Album is sweet and sincere - like we all used to be. It's a fun refreshment from a world which is oftentimes mean and sarcastic.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sufjan: love him, hate him, fight him, admire him

Some days I feel like the worst hipster ever, not that I am really trying to be a hipster, but having just looked up the definition of "hipster" in the Urban Dictionary, I pretty much am one. There is one core reason for my sense of detachment from the hipster movement at large, and that would be my relationship with Indie/Hipster darling Sufjan Stevens.
I have no idea how/when Stevens came on the scene. I can't remember who introduced me to him, either; which is most unusual. The first association I have with his music, however, are his two state albums Illinois and Michigan. My first response was "I can't believe he used midi oboe. This sounds terrible!" Then whoever it was that introduced me to this new soundscape informed me that he plays all his own instruments. For just a moment, that made me feel better, because I guess oboe is hard to play and sound good. Then I thought "This still sounds terrible!" His song "Chicago" from Illinois is referenced in a Snow Patrol song that I love. And people I know and love and who generally have impeccable taste love his music, but I just couldn't understand.
For a long time I would pretend to like Sufjan whenever he was being discussed, and I would coo and giggle over the state albums and be excited when there was talk of a new album, but when it was released, I would never do anything to procure a copy. I was surprised to eventually learn that one of my favorite David Crowder songs (for it's authentic approach to God's seeming absence) was originally a Sufjan tune off Michigan ("Oh God Where are you now? ...) and this seemed to give a little bit more legitimacy to his efforts, but I was still undecided. Then I heard part of his Christmas box-set and our relationship, Sufjan's music and mine, changed. First, I heard some new friends playing some of these new arrangements of Christmas classics and I was instantly charmed. They were inventive and innocent and difficult to sing along with because they were nothing like the originals but above all they were ... beautiful. I was so pleased when I learned they were actually Stevens' arrangements because now I actually did have an affection to back up my words with my friends. There's something about the new eyes with which Stevens sees these classics that I can understand. Music that comes straight from his brain, I cannot seem to grasp - we have no common ground in the functioning of our minds/understanding of music. But if the music comes from someone else's brain and Stevens reinterprets or reinvents it, I love it - we now have common ground.
The more investigation I have done into his music, the more messy my relationship with Stevens' has become. For the most part I think I can say I admire him. I don't think everything he does is gold or even a diamond in the rough. I feel okay saying this. I feel right and honest, and not the least bit dirty about it.
Even as I have been writing this post and thinking about this complicated relationship, I have been streaming his albums on Spotify and find this love/hate/admire relationship to be consistent. I seem to like his more recent work better, perhaps he has been practicing his oboe, or abandoned it completely and stuck with some different instrumentation choices. I have been impressed with the Shostakovich-like string part in the eleventh minute (that's right, the eleventh minute) of the original version of "All Delighted People" from his 2010 All Delighted People EP and I've heard references to classic Simon & Garfunkel in some of his lyrics. The man knows quality, clearly. Regardless of how I feel about his music-making, I have to respect his taste and his independence. His style is definitive and unique. You always know a Sufjan Stevens record and even his record label Asthmatic Kitty has a certain vibe to all its artists.
Here's the bottom line: I do not love the music of Sufjan Stevens, but I don't hate it either. That sounds like it could be the worst thing you could say to an artist. But it's certainly not a lack of reaction in this case either. I am not apathetic by any means. I merely relate to him as an artist in a deeply complicated and individual way. I have been in a continual struggle with my true response to Stevens until this point and I think the struggle ends here: I respect and admire him and what he does. I will probably break down and buy all of his albums at one point or another because they should be on every self-respecting hipster's iPod, but I will probably frequently skip over them and rarely be in the mood for them. Every now and again, though, they will hit the spot.
Except the Christmas albums, those will become a Christmas tradition in my house.
Speaking of Christmas, I am so ready for it to be here! Anyone else? Think it's too early to go caroling? Next July, I am going to get a group together to go Christmas-in-July caroling. Who's in?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Golder Discoveries

The week Haley Bonar released her new LP Golder was a fairly bleak music-release week. I had rather despaired of finding anything new that week when I happened upon her name way down at the bottom of the iTunes new releases list. (It's true, there's really no magic about where or how I find new music. Just lifting up a few rocks, scrolling down a few lists and happening upon some pots of gold ... and every now and again a pot of coal.) Her name seemed fairly promising and her music has followed suit.
Described as alternative/country, her style is difficult to classify. It's got electric guitars and drums, tambourines and wuzzley sounds (I made that word up), some acoustic guitars and a pleasant voice which sounds like an amalgam of a lot of female singers - the most striking being her resemblance to Patty Griffin in the rocking "Raggedy Man." Reading her bio, she's approachable and down-to-earth, living her own story and making music by her own rules, as encouraged by her artistically-friendly upbringing.
You can tell a lot about a person by the music they make most of the time, and Bonar's is unique, friendly, light-hearted and free-spirited, but appropriately structured.
When I first sat down on my porch and gave this album a listen through, every song seemed to bring a bigger and bigger smile to my face, not in the same way as say Freelance Whales, but in the way that it was exactly what I had needed to hear after a frustrating day at "the office." The album elicited an audible laugh when I reached the bubbly penultimate track "Bad For You." With the whole female singer-songwriter thing she has going on, despite her genre-denying style, I was expecting "Bad For You" to be a poignant reflection on a past failed relationship. Instead it's a tongue-in-cheek look at the way you can't live with this world, and you can't live without it. I played it for my roommate, but she didn't love it the same way I did. Bonar's not guaranteed to be everyone's cup of tea, but she's worth a listen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Optimistic Reality

Every now and again I stumble, serendipitously, upon some music that lights up my life. Recently Amazon was running a great deal featuring 100 digital albums at $5. There is a part of me that hates to support Amazon because of what's become of Borders and all that Amazon seems to stand for. But I have to give them props; they've found a market and made it theirs. And $5 albums! What a steal. It took some of the risk out of exploring new bands or adding those albums to my collection that I knew as a music geek I should have and just hadn't managed to make it happen yet. As I was checking out the deals, I clicked on the samples for a band called The Submarines. The album cover was simple and slightly quirky, meaning either 1. super awesome or 2. trying too hard. In the first two seconds of the first sample "Shoelaces", my heart had found a new home. It was peppy, upbeat, strange in the most charming way with synths and bells and boops and pops. So great! I bought it. Right away. Since then, the whole album (their most recent release: Love Notes/Letter Bombs) has followed through on the promise of those first two seconds and has been lighting up my face constantly.

A few days after buying the album, I had a little bit of a heartbreaking encounter with a boy and while I did give myself the room to cry and grieve, instead of spiraling into a pit of despair, The Submarines came through and lifted my spirits. Every song is about a relationship - either the glories of one gone right or the sweet sadness of one gone wrong. The song "Tigers" goes in the latter category. But it's not the typical "You broke my heart, you stinking piece of filth, I hope you grow disgusting sores in all the wrong places" break-up song. Neither is it the "I want you back, oh baby, oh baby" kind either. Instead it describes the kind of picture we all wish we could have with failed or doomed relationships. The chorus says "You know I've loved you from the start/But this house can't make you stay/Sometimes these things just fall apart." All hope is not yet lost, but rational thought has set into the relationship and things simply aren't looking good. But the tempo, drums, synth and samples keep the world from crashing in. The whole album has that same optimistic reality to it - even the happy love songs are still rational and don't make you want to throw up.

I don't know anything about the band, except it's a guy named John and a girl named Blake apparently. But their blogs on their website are adorable ... just like their music.

If you've liked The Dodos, GIVERS or Freelance Whales posts, you're probably going to love The Submarines, too. I just can't seem to get enough of this happy groove.

Photo credit: Promo image from the interwebs.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Banjos and Sunshine

I don't consider myself the trendiest person. I seem to have trend ADD; I just cannot focus enough to grasp or care about them. Sometimes I'm late to them; sometimes I'm in the thick of them; there's just no telling.

I remember hearing about this trendy band called Freelance Whales over a year ago during NPR's coverage of the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, TX. I even downloaded a SXSW sampler including a song by them, but never bothered to listen to it.
A few months ago, Starbucks actually teamed up with Freelance Whales and featured their song "Generator (First Floor)" in a commercial. It made its way onto my iPod and through the beauty of shuffle, it finally made its way to my blessed eardrums just over a month ago.

Freelance Whales is from Queens, NY and formed as all the best bands seem to do nowadays - word of mouth and Craigslist (how else?) and started by filling the subways of their home city with joyous sounds. Their music is fun and littered with bells, whistles, banjos and synthesizers - all things for which I have a weak spot. The band's debut album, Weathervanes, released in 2009 and is 13 songs of joy & fun. The sound smacks of Sufjan Stevens, Owl City, The Postal Service, Noah and the Whale, old Jimmy Eat World and even a little Arcade Fire. Although eclectic, the sound is well-balanced and beautiful.

It's hard to keep your feet or the corners of your mouth down when listening to this collective of free spirits; so if you're in a mood to wallow in your self-pity, this would not be a good choice. But if you're ready to walk down the street accompanied by an infectious hook, banjo and sunshine, these are your kids.

Standout songs: Generator (First Floor)
We Could Be Friends
Generator (Second Floor)

Photo from; you can hear a good interview with Freelance Whales from them here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Summer Means a New 'Winter'

Some of the best things come out of difficult times of life. Bon Iver, Justin Vernon's labor of love lost is a beautiful example of this. During a self-prescribed period of isolation following a break-up and an illness, Vernon began slowly forming an aural soundscape which became For Emma, Forever Ago. Tracks from Emma and the subsequent EP Blood Bank found their way into major television shows and feature films in both the US and the UK, most notably the appearance of the single "Skinny Love" in Grey's Anatomy and Chuck.
It's hard to believe, but it's been five years since the release of that Indie chart topper. Like a Christmas gift in June, Bon Iver (whose name comes from the French "bon hiver" meaning "beautiful winter") finally released the follow-up album Bon Iverlast month. And what a gift it is! The two albums bear some differences in general emotional appeal and instrumentation, but are very obviously still siblings. While Emma came from a place of heartache and recovery, Bon seems to come from a happier place - at least according to Vernon in an interview with NPR. I notice the instrumentation changes, especially when it comes to the somewhat controversial last song "Beth/Rest." But overall the album takes me to nearly the same place Vernon's debut album takes me - a place of quietness and contentment in the midst of turmoil or unrest. Bon Iver's music is always a place I can go to find rest and solitude. Although there's a certain part of it that pushes my general acceptance of synth/electronic music, Bon Iver has managed to earn my trust with anything he does. This includes some of the synth choices on Bon Iver like those in the single "Calgary" or the already mentioned "Beth/Rest." Comments have been made, and I agree, connecting these particular tracks (especially the latter) with the rash-causing synthesizer found in 80s music. But because of the relationship I already have with the artist and his creation, I'm willing to overlook it and almost embrace it. There's a certain sincerity in it that I hear now, that I don't hear in those once-beloved classics of days past. I wonder if this will still hold true twenty years from now.
I don't have any tracks like "Skinny Love" with hooks that get stuck in my head for hours at work yet, but I am always taken with the opening piano notes of "Wash." and the few words I understand in "Holocene" - Once I knew/I was not magnificent. The iTunes bonus track release comes with a video of Vernon playing "I Can't Make You Love Me/Nick of Time" which completely changes those tunes from eye-rolling and gag-inducing to tender, true and legitimate.
I had a hard time saying if I really wanted Bon Iver to come out with another album. I loved the first one so much, and I adore the EP, but part of the draw for me was its organic existence ... that Vernon never intended to record an album, it just grew out of him - you can hear that, I think. If there wasn't another one in him, I was okay with that. I was okay with accepting For Emma as a happy accident, complete musical serendipity, perfection or near. It would save me the heartache of a sub-standard sequel that would compromise my love of the first album. I'm happy to say, however, my fears were ill-founded and music does not necessarily always follow the paths of movies. There are more sounds found on this album - saxophone being one of them - but it's still the same Bon Iver. Vernon's vocals being an important mainstay.
You know the feeling you get before you go to bed, when all you want is your blanket and your pajamas? Or when there's a gentle snow outside, but you can sit by a warm fire in front of a widow with a mug of hot chocolate and slowly watch the world transform? Bon Iver's music is the aural equivalent to that feeling. Seriously. See if that's not true for you; it certainly is for me.

Photo by Drew Kaiser

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Fiestas and Siestas"

Summer means: sunshine, sunburns, long days, longer nights, rest, fun, windows down, popsicles, departure from the norm and superhero movies. And each of these things requires a certain soundtrack. They're awesome on their own, but the right playlist makes it worthy of a few of those memory brain cells.

GIVERS, a Louisiana quartet has its own contribution to make to that ever-important summer playlist, and those contributions can be found on their first full-length album, In light. Everything about it is perfect for summer - from the release date (this past Tuesday, June 7th - when the sun is still working its way to its highest and hottest, leaving plenty of time to revel) to its sound. Hailing from Lafayette, LA, GIVERS display nearly every aspect of the varied southern cajun music scene. There are some Zydeco grooves, African whistling ("Atlantic"), swamp blues ("Go Out At Night"), Carribbean congo rhythms ("In My Eyes"), and even a nod to Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" from Rodeo ("Ceiling of Plankton"). The music resembles the lifestyle - it is serious fun, carefree and deeply authentic. I don't generally know what the lyrics are saying, but the ones I catch I like and the ones I miss, don't bother me. They have the same level of energy as The Dodos, but are a little more innocent and optimistic.

The first single from the album, "Up Up Up" is an uptempo, catchy, irresistible tune destined to bring a smile to your face and a swing to your hips ... even practically-fused-hips like mine. It is best enjoyed loud, but be warned, it will get stuck in your head, especially at inappropriate times like prayer meetings. "I Saw You First" sounds like it could be included as part of the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack. Several of the songs qualify to accompany a boardwalk rollerskating scene in an Indie chick flick featuring Michael Cera. Everytime I hear "Go Out at Night" I love it more - there's something incredibly compelling about it's laid back, slow groove.

After undergoing rigorous unstandardized testing, In Light's scores stand as follows:

The "Sunny Day, Car Windows Down" Test: A
The "Laying in the Sun at the Pool" Test: A
The "Beach Volleyball" Test: A
The "Dance in the Street/on the Sidewalk/Anywhere With Your Friends" Test: A
The "Crank it up to 10" Test: A
The "Crank it up to 11" Test: B
The "Full Voice Sing-Along" Test: C (in spite of the last song's title and subject-matter, words aren't so paramount)

With this album, it is going to be a good summer. They say it themselves, "I choose light."

Get ready for summer, here's their first single "Up Up Up"

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Rob Bell - Love Wins

The time has come for me to contribute my part of the hype that has surrounded this book. I've heard murmurings of Rob Bell being a universalist, of blasphemy, of herecy, of blatant lies, of confusion, all sorts of really nasty things. The worst part? They've all come from within the very church Bell claims to be a part of ... well, sort of. Bell probably wouldn't say the church he follows would support such claims or attitudes. But the point is, they both claim to follow Jesus!

I'm going to cut to the chase and tell you my conclusion. Ready? Here it is:

I still don't understand what all the hype is about.

I didn't really understand what all the hype was about in the first place. Not understanding what people are upset about really helps one keep an open mind when diving into said controversy, at least it did in my case. I also tried to avoid hearing what most people were saying until I had read it for myself. I did listen to one interview with Rob Bell on Relevant Magazine's podcast. I thought I would allow myself to hear the thoughts of the person who penned such controversial material.

What I understand now is that some people think Bell is saying everyone will go to Heaven, because in the end Love wins. I see the argument. If God is all-powerful, and everything is subject to His will and His will is that no one should perish, then it seems everyone will go to Heaven, right? I see that argument. Bell, I think, also makes that argument. But. Bell also says that true Love is choice and it wouldn't be very loving of God to send/bring people to Heaven if they don't want to go to Heaven. So not everyone goes to Heaven.

Bell also challenges the generally accepted view of Hell as a real place, experienced after our life on this Earth has ended, and separate from this Earth. And that one I'm not going to touch with a ten-foot-pole because 1. I just don't care 2. I really don't know anything about it and 3. I just don't care.

My impression throughout the whole book was that Bell is offering humbly his understanding and possible view of Heaven and Hell and then gives some reasons for his understanding that. I also leave with the impression that Bell really doesn't know how it's all going to work out, and it's all a big mystery because who of us can really say until all is said and done? But that we shouldn't be afraid of mystery; we should dive in, as long as we remember we're really just making guesses, some more educated than others.

I've read three of Bell's previous books, and I subscribe to his church's sermon podcast. Perhaps I wasn't the most neutral to begin with. I'll confess that I've heard a bit more liberal leanings come from his church's sermons, especially as of late. But I also try to listen carefully to what's being said, what's being meant, and how it all lines up with what I know from my experience with Scripture and the leadings of the Spirit. I think that last part is really the key point in this entire controversy. It is important that we remember, well meaning and well-versed as our pastors and spiritual leaders may be, they are still fallible (unless you're Catholic, but even then ...), they are still human, still finite beings, trying to elucidate the infinite Creator. Tell me we're all going to get it right every time!

If you're already upset with Rob Bell for his cultural relevancy, or whatever other reason (there can be many), then you're probably not going to like this book either. If you're already a fan of Rob Bell, you're probably going to love this book. If you're already carefully weighing the words of every pastor you hear, you're probably going to like some parts of this book and not other parts of it. But I'd still recommend it. I found it to be an enjoyable experience.

Here are a couple of the passages I particularly liked:
"Jesus consistently affirmed heaven as a real place, space, and dimension of God's creation, where God's will and only God's will is done. Heaven is that realm where things are as God intends them to be." (Page 42)

"There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously." (Page 79)

"Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn't. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn't. Renewal and return cause God's greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn't." (Page 108)

"Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God's ways for us. We can have all the hell we want." (Pages 113)

"Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don't need to resolve them or answer them because we can't, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires." (Page 115)

Finally: "Grace and generosity aren't fair; that's their very essence." (Page 168)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What to do when you don't know what to do

I have a book sitting next to my bed called "Plan B" ... it's about what to do when "Plan A" doesn't work out.
Every day I have a new plan for my life.
The one magazine I subscribe to just ran an article about 11 things you should know/do around your 25th ish year of life.

I've been thinking a lot about where I should go next, what I should do next, what I should do at all with my life, what my long term goals are, who I want to be, what I want to do. Do I go back to school? Do I get a doctorate? Do I become a writer? Do I stick with performing? Do I try to find a new job? Do I keep taking auditions? Can I still do an internship at NPR even though I'm out of school? Will I ever get married? How can I get a job being a professional friend (like, driving around the country encouraging my friends and crashing on their couches)?

I've asked these sorts of questions my whole life. Which is why at one Passion Conference I fell in love with Micah 6:8 where it says "...the LORD has already told you what is good, and this is what he requires: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."

At prayer with my new church tonight I was reminded of this verse and on my way home from prayer I was again thinking about these questions.

And here's what I think you do when you don't know what to do, where to go or how to get there ... Breathe. And do something. Anything, really, but mostly do whatever is right in front of you to do.

So tonight I will go to bed. And tomorrow I will go to work. And I will be present at work, not lost in some fantasy land, because I'm in Cleveland now and Cleveland needs my full attention and my love, and I have love to give Cleveland and who knows, somewhere in this city, there just might be the next clue on this treasure hunt of life and it just might be right in front of my face ... eventually. And after work I will practice and then maybe I'll do some reading or some writing before riding to rehearsal with friends. Because that's what I have to tackle next. My doctoral dissertation doesn't need to be written tomorrow. But coffee does need to be made tomorrow. And I'm just the woman for the job.

So tomorrow I'll do what is right, I'll love mercy and I'll walk humbly with my God ... and then we'll take it from there.

Charlie Hall sings a version of "Micah 6:8" and I was obsessed with it for a good long time ...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Aeolus Quartet

Something a little different on the blog tonight. Not an album review, but a concert review.

I just got home from the Aeolus Quartet's da Capo performance in Reinberger Hall at Severance Hall in Cleveland. (I call it da Capo because as the quartet was formed right here in Cleveland at the Cleveland Institute of Music, it was a return to their roots a little bit.) Here is what you need to know: these kids are fantastic. I say "kids" with great love. I might be biased because they are also good, treasured friends of mine. But do not let that change your opinion, I'm hard on my friends.

Aeolus has been officially together as an ensemble for three years now. All four members have just finished post-graduate degrees at the University of Texas at Austin where they were the first Graduate Quartet-in-Residence at the school. As individuals, they are young; as an ensemble, they are young; as artists, they are way beyond their years.

The quartet put together a big program - a Bartok quartet, a Mendelssohn quartet plus two new works by living composers. Each piece presenting its own difficulties in mastering well, but mastered these artists certainly did. The Mendelssohn may have been the weakest on the program, the middle movements perhaps needing a little extra care than what they'd received, or suffering from fatigue as it was the last piece on the aggressive program. The Bartok was stand-out incredible. Such a mentally, musically and physically demanding piece and Aeolus certainly rose to the challenge and won. Alan Richardson's cello playing in the third movement was absolutely stunning. And the new works were intriguing and palatable. First on the program was Steven Snowden's "Appalachian Polaroids" which makes use of taped recording that interweaves through the beginning of the piece until the quartet takes over the sound. It's recognition of Americana sonorities and techniques make it resonate in the hearts of the audience - difficult to do with modern music these days. The Snowden has a companion piece in Alexandra Bryant's "Lady Isabelle Was That Kind of a Woman." Talking with the quartet members afterward, violinist (and husband of the composer) Nick Tavani let me in on some of the inside difficulties of the piece. It requires the players to both speak and play in rhythm - which can be done, but is a little like patting your head and rubbing your belly at once. He told me they were afraid of it at first, but they certainly didn't sound it at all. What I appreciated most about the Bryant was its use of rhythm and speech pattern in musical form.

The Aeolus Quartet possesses the rare combination of passion and discipline. I know they practice 8 hours a day, 6 days a week together. And their discipline shows. Each member is so familiar with not only their own part, not only each other's parts, but even how every note works in the whole of the piece - the purpose and direction of each phrase. They live inside this music. But it is that living that sets them apart. They really LIVE in the music. It has not lost meaning or just become rote, each player is present in each moment. They are communicating across the ensemble, they are communicating with the audience, they are communicating with themselves. Nick Tavani is a brilliant soloist, whose moments in the Mendelssohn elicited a literal mid-performance exclamation from his teacher, legendary William Preucil, of "That's my boy!" Rachel Shapiro's ensemble playing was on fire, supporting each line as necessary and then finally getting her own real moment to shine during their encore piece. Greg Luce's sweet sweet viola sound is so good for the soul - it really makes me feel bad for perpetrating so many viola jokes. And my superstar of the night cellist Alan Richardson was absolutely solid and his interpretation gorgeous. It is so inspiring to be in close proximity to these fantastic players. But even beyond what they bring to the stage, each one is so personable off stage as well. They can talk your ear off about what they just played, but they can also tell you about other bands, other composers, video games or food.

I'm not kidding you - watch out for these kids ... and just plain watch them. If you can make it to any of their performances, even if it requires a little bit of a drive for you, do it. It is completely worth your while; especially if you stay and chat with them afterward.

They are living proof that truly great sound is no respecter of time - you are never too young and it is never too old.

This video is from their website. Enjoy!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Laura Jansen - Bells

I’m a sucker for a good female singer-songwriter, I’ll admit. It probably has something to do with being yet another year older and in my seemingly permanent state of singleness. So I was ready to give Laura Jansen a shot when she’s suggested with the likes of Ingrid Michaelson and Regina Spektor. But then I considered “perhaps there just isn’t anymore room in my heart for another feminine voice singing heartwrenchingly accurate songs of longing and heartache.” Laura Jansen gave me hope that perhaps there really is room left in my heart, but also made me think, perhaps she is not meant to occupy that remaining space.
When I think about picking this album up again and giving it a listen, I grow weary. It feels like work. But when I do finally give it a chance, I’m always pleasantly surprised. It’s like those family reunions you dread going to because you have to talk to your older slightly pretentious cousin. And then you show up, because you have to and if you don’t your grandmother will tell you “when the family falls apart, it’s your fault.” And when you get there, you remember how surprisingly not pretentious your older cousin is; that actually he (or she) tells great stories and is great to drink with.

In a nod to something metaphysical, or perhaps just to let you in on what the tone of the album is going to be, the album starts off with a song called “The End” about the end of a relationship. The very first few piano chords, especially when the vocal comes in, sounds very much like a Keane cover – or like perhaps the band had some sort of operation since we’ve last heard from them.
In general the album is mostly piano heavy with some not-completely-offensive background tracks (drum machine, pseudo-Postal-Service synth effects, strings). The vocal harmonies are quite pleasant and the tunes are fine. The title track “Bells” seems to only recall bells with the piano notes, but doesn’t actually employ any real bells – I’m mixed about this choice.
The standout track is probably track 3 (as I’ve come to learn seems to be a trend), “Single Girls.” It’s an honest, vulnerable look at a girl’s life post-break-up. Simple, sweet and almost naïve; it’s really quite beautiful. And the album even includes a live performance sans background instruments/vocals. And gentle as that version is, I might like the studio better; the honesty seems almost forced in the live performance.
There’s a quirky tune in “Wicked World.” “Soljah” almost offends me with it’s semi-Reggae/semi-R&B sound. Jansen also does a risky thing and covers Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody.” I don’t think the risk pays off.

It sounds like I really hate this album, which I don’t. It’s a little all over the place, stylistically and I just don’t see it as something original. There have been plenty of other female singer-songwriters before who have done it better. I’m not saying there’s no place for this album, but it’s not in my regularly circulating library. It just does nothing for me. Maybe a few more coffee shop shows and a few more character-building heartbreaks and she’ll really put out something stellar. Keep with it kid, if your heart’s in it; but maybe keep it to your intimate circle of people until you can bring someone else’s heart into it, too.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Dodos - No Color

I don’t know how to write objectively about music. So I’m not going to try especially hard to.

There’s this new-to-me band out right now called The Dodos. Last week they released a new album called No Color and it’s fantastic. I have been playing it nonstop this past week and talking about it to every person who will listen to me. It was slow to grow on me, it took me about one and a half listen throughs before my attention was grabbed, but I’m not sure how it took me that long. The album begins with some loud, insistent, guaranteed-to-grab-your-attention drumming. This insistent drumming, it turns out, is one of the main characteristics of this band and I love them for it. Mainly comprised of just two guys who share a crazy love of West African Ewe drumming and some guests depending on instrumentation needs, the Dodos play with form and rhythm and timing. The complexity of the lines happening and the way they interweave completely blows my mind. There is no bad song on this album, although there are three standout songs that I will skip to almost every time. The track that closes the album “Don’t Stop” has completely won my heart. It has this driving, striving sound through the verses and bridges – repetitive, fast drumming rhythms, distorted guitar, frantic guitar-picking – but when it hits the chorus, it’s like a ray of sunshine has just come out. The rhythm cuts to a half-time feel, the electric guitar has this bright melodic riff which gives you the same feeling you get during early summer days when the sun has reminded you why you continue to breathe every day and you are certain that you can rule the world without even trying. The chorus only happens once, making that breakthrough moment just that much more special. I have no idea what the lyrics are for the majority of this album; the vocal element just isn’t that commanding with this band and that may be part of the draw for me – I think it’s really challenging to have a really compelling sound without using the natural power of the human voice and the instinctive effect that poetic lyrics can have. These guys are just solid solid musicians. The drumming is unlike anything I typically hear in popular music today – it’s innovative, risky, difficult, progressive and the guitar technique is incredible! No one picks like that anymore.

You can download the track "Don't Stop" for free here!

On a day when the sun is shining and you have the opportunity to do some really fast-paced, high energy activities (like driving down the highway, running or riding a bike) listen to this album. It will prove to be a fantastic companion. But know, it is best listened to loud and fast.

For fans of: Panda Bear, Animal Collective, The Shins, Local Natives

Friday, March 11, 2011

Towards the Sun

Alexi Murdoch
Towards the Sun

2011 is proving itself to be quite the year for high quality music. We’re only one quarter of the way into the year and I have at least three albums vying for “album of the year” already. This album by Alexi Murdoch is one of those. Towards the Sun is Murdoch’s first release since 2006’s Time Without Consequence. Although it’s been five years, the albums sound like they could be twins. Murdoch’s creamy voice is unchanged and his rich, simple orchestration continues. The lyrics are thoughtful and deep. It makes you wonder why it took so long. The album can be described in one word: warm. If you have the luxury of a few more words, “beautiful,” “honest,” “intimate” come to mind. Everything about it is warm, from the vocals, to the mixing and balance, to the lyrics. For most of the album, it seems to be Murdoch’s voice and his guitar, but at no point does it sound sparse or empty. The whole of the production makes it clear that this quality of music-making comes naturally, but not easily to Murdoch, making it all the more precious. It’s like a blanket for your soul. Murdoch's music is the sort you're likely to hear in the background of some show like Grey's Anatomy, or One Tree Hill, but if you're a purist, don't let that dissuade you from investigating this artist. It's downright great music. Pure and unadulterated by commercial influence. Although just released this week, there's a sense of timelessness when you listen to it -- like you've uncovered/rediscovered some great treasure in your grandparent's attic. Some may say the album is monotonous, but it’s the good kind of monotony … like the ocean is monotonous. My only problem is it’s only seven songs long; but even that length might be just perfect, keeping the whole on the beautiful side of monotony instead of the exhausting. Whatever the length, I love Alexi’s music and I love this album.

Music to … exist … by.

For fans of: Nick Drake, The Civil Wars, Ari Hest, James Taylor

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


My grandmother, Dodie, passed away in her sleep early this morning in her bed in Muncie, about the time that I was getting up to go to work in Cleveland. She was 96 and sharp as a tack on most days and not much duller on the rest. We're doing okay. It's hard to believe, and it took us by surprise. We were ready a couple of weeks ago when she went to the hospital, but she bounced back and was back to her normal self rather quickly. I think it's really hard on my parents and my dad's brothers and sister, especially.

I grew up with my grandma. She moved into our house when I was 8, after her husband died and she no longer desired to keep up the farmhouse where she was living by herself. We used to celebrate the anniversary of her move-in, every year with Fazoli's for their garlic-soaked breadsticks ... those really aren't fair to anyone in the world ... breath or bowels ... but they're so good.

The strangest thing for me right now is that life is continuing on as normal. I took a nap today after I found out, I finished the book I had been reading, I went for a run, I made dinner. I've cried a few times; I've chosen to do things in a different order on account of how I feel ... but mostly I feel numb. And sad. And weird. And normal. Which feels abnormal.

My mom told me I didn't need to come home, which is better for me because I have a busy week ... but I should've known she was lying ... because I'm pretty sure she is. I'm pretty sure I needed to call work, find someone to work for me tomorrow and drive home so I could be there tonight and at least tomorrow morning before coming back to go to Erie. I think this was a character defining time for me, and I blew it a little bit. I'm still thinking about finding someone to work for me Friday, so I can at least be home Thursday night and Friday morning before returning to Erie Friday night. But I think I've already missed a really important time.

Erie's playing Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem this week. Which is completely appropriate, but I don't know how I'm going to make it through. I'm about to try to do some score study and I'm almost fallen apart. Lord, give me strength.

The first words of the Requiem are "Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted." from Matthew 5:4
and the last words are "...Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their words do follow them." from Revelation 14:13

I don't think I will ever forget this concert.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Why Classical Music Won't Die

The arts are having a hard time in this economy. Everyone is having a hard time in this economy, but the arts have been fighting for their right to party for even longer than this economy has been. I don't know when it started and I don't particularly care, but schools have for a very long time been faced with a choice between arts programs or sports programs and most of them have chosen sports over arts. This means an upcoming generation less exposed to the beauty of the arts. And all over the States, professional orchestras are folding and declaring bankruptcy under the financial strain of operating in this country. Others are cutting paychecks or rehearsals or seasons or benefits or players to save money and stay afloat. My own ensemble is many thousands of dollars in debt. And it sometimes seems that the classical arts are fighting a losing battle and we should probably go ahead and give up the ghost. But I don't think that time has yet come, and here are some reasons why.

1. The arts have been around, really since the beginning of civilization; that an economic meltdown could shut that down seems a little short-sighted.

2. Hearts, when exposed, are still moved -- across ages, across cultures, across socio-economic classes.

3. A creative generation, my generation, is rising up to start new groups, to restart old groups, and to take and redefine classical traditions.

4. Orchestras are starting to come around and see that this is a new time and they must operate with new tools ... they are Tweeting, touring, facebooking, making ticket deals, changing attendance rules (i.e. the Indianapolis Symphony allows you to bring your drinks into the conference hall; many orchestras now feature rush-hour concerts, designed and timed to be attended directly after work ... no special attire, just your presence), flash mobbing

In my mind's eye, and probably because I'm partial, the Indianapolis Symphony seems to be one of the few 52-week orchestras doing everything it can think of to catch up to the rest of the world, and I'm proud of them. And when I saw this video, that's when I knew that Classical Music won't die ... not in my lifetime at least. It will probably have to continue to change and adapt a bit, but it always has and I think it always will, I hope so anyway.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I Snow it!

I write this from the midst of Snopocalypse/Icepocalypse 2011. Cleveland doesn't seem to be getting nearly what others are getting, but our due is certainly on its way.

There's something about snow that always makes me think of Calvin and Hobbes. Anybody else?

I shoveled our driveway today for about an hour and a half or so, I guess.
For the record, the following bands make excellent company for business like snow shoveling:

One last thought: Do yourself a favor, pay $7.99 on iTunes and buy The Civil Wars LP "Barton Hollow." It's truthfully one of the most beautiful albums I have he
ard in a long long time. Best $7.99 I've spent in a long time, too. Definitely better than the Sam Adams I bought for the same price ... too hoppy. :(

This is my finished result today:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Truth beats Self-Pity

I have a tendency toward self-pity; I don't know if you've noticed that. I really seemed to notice it tonight, when I was sitting in the auditorium that is my new church, waiting for the service to start, when the lights go down and no one passing by will notice that I've come to church alone. So God opened my eyes to this self-pity and I prayed that He would move my mind away from that, away from myself and move it to the bigness of Him, of His love, of His purpose. And then we started singing. And we sang songs about the wonder of God, about the sovereignty of God, about His strength and His presence as our fortress, our refuge. And the worship was uplifting, even if I was standing by myself singing, I wasn't singing alone (although that didn't occur to me until right now) ... the point was, I was singing. And what it was that I was singing was True. When the singing ended and the lights came up, we greeted those around us, and two of the four people I know at the church now (two of the four people I met at women's group on Thursday) were standing within greeting distance from me. And I was comforted. And the sermon was good, there were things in it for me to chew on ... like "God is more present in the goodbyes than the hellos" speaking of Joseph in the Old Testament ... And then we sang again, more Truth.

Rob Bell at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has given a couple of sermons about why we sing, and he always makes the point that sometimes we sing not because we feel like it, but because we want to feel like it; and sometimes we sing because we just need to have Truth come across our lips. And sometimes that's just enough, because that's where we are. And that's a little bit where I was tonight. And I can say now, from experience, that having Truth on your lips, really does make a difference in the things that are on your mind. I don't know which comes first, but I do know that they're related.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Love's Too Big For You

I have a confession to make: after sunset, I turn into a pumpkin. All my thinking generally becomes dark, maybe a little twisted and pretty morose. Most of the thoughts to follow surfaced after the sunset tonight. Also, I spent several hours in a car by myself today. Like 8+ hours. I still loved it all, but ... it might explain some things.

A friend of mine asked me over the summer how he could be a better friend.

Should someone ask you this question, unless they are asking about how they can be a good/better friend to you specifically ... DO NOT ANSWER IT! It's a trick. They don't mean it as a trick, but your ego means it as a trick. Although you (i.e. I) may feel you know all there is to know about being an awesome friend ... you (i.e. I) should not actually give voice to that particular feeling.

I, being ignorant of this self-destructive-ego-plot and tired and a wee bit prideful, answered his query as such: "You know what? I think you depend on your friends too much. You ask them to hold up too much of your identity. You need to find your strength in the Lord and not in your friends and not in yourself."

He walked out of the room. We haven't had a good conversation since then.

I could just slap myself for saying that. Perhaps it's true, but unless you are Jesus Christ Himself, you cannot say those things, especially not if (and I'm not saying he was) someone is asking you from a tender place of brokenness and vulnerability.

I realized tonight, that I was speaking to my friend of the speck in His eye looking through the lens of the plank in my own.

It struck me tonight that I am guilty of asking just as much, if not more, from my friends as that friend asks of his. I'm not saying it's bad to lean on your friends when you're down ... that's why God created us to live in community. Remember, it's not good for Man to be alone? That whole thing. But I am saying there are things that only Christ can do, that we sometimes ask other people to do.

Mine comes in this way: righteousness. I have been thinking for a long time that I am a bit of a legalist. And that I put my legalistic tendencies on my friends and acquaintances (as evidenced in my continual parting remark of "make good choices" ... it's cute and clever and funny for awhile, but eventually perhaps my friends just want to make whatever choices they want to make, even if they're not good ... and they should do that ... and I should still love them ... besides, who am I to know what is a good or bad choice? Some may be obvious, but most probably have a lot of gray areas.) And I strive pretty hard for righteousness, because I am a created rule-follower. Now, I'm more prone to break rules now than I used to be, but in general, if there are rules ... I follow them.
And for the most part, by God's grace, I do think that I strive pretty well toward righteousness. I screw up all the time, but I do pretty well.
But I think I ask, maybe not intentionally or obviously, the same sort of effort from my friends, and if they don't give that effort enough to satisfy me (because they don't want to, or they can't, or they don't understand, or value it, or they're too tired, or whatever) then I judge them (not always intentionally). This is a problem I think!

I don't think I do it intentionally almost ever, but I do not think I'm living in the marevlous light of Grace as much as I could be ... I sort of live in the shadows of Grace where I'm covered, but still mostly in charge of what's going on ... still sort of in control of my own thing ... expecting it of others as well.

Woe to my prideful heart!

I think I have been smothering my friends with my well-meaning, but slightly over-zealous love.

Sorry! I'll try to do better, to be better ... but wait, it's this trying that's the problem. Well, God and I will work on it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Just a few thoughts on the importance of Nurture through a couple of stories about the importance of the people with whom we surround ourselves.

This past weekend I finally was able to spend Christmas with my family. We just barely missed Epiphany by three days, so we were almost still in the technical Christmas season. But whatever the liturgical, lunar, or standard American calendar said, it was Christmas for us. And it even almost felt like it. As part of the weekend, we took a family trip to the movies. In Indiana they are starting to do this really cool thing where once a month a bank offers a free movie to families of autistic children. You have to sign up ahead of time and you have to be on a special eligible listy thing, so it's really only for these families. It's great for so many reasons.
1. It's free. And these families already spend so much money on treatments and medicines and special lifestyles that the idea of taking the whole family to a movie (especially with ticket prices the way they are!) can make any math-proficient parent balk. Even well off families balk at going to movies.

2. The volume is lowered and the lights are raised. Now, it's not a movie for deaf kids. You can still hear the movie, it's just not so eardrum-shatteringly loud. And the lights aren't up all the way, just enough to keep kids from freaking out. It's a very comfortable environment, and they take special care to make sure everything is adjusted properly before leaving us to enjoy our movie in relative peace.

3. (Speaking of relative peace) All the other kids in there are autistic or related to autistic children. If a kid stands up on his seat or decides to walk around the theater or screams at the screen, it's completely fine. None of the parents are judging the parents of the child; they completely understand. How freeing it must be for those parents. Can you imagine? I'm sure many of them don't ever get to leave the house because they're afraid of what sort of scene their beloved child is going to cause and the people just won't understand. They'll call her a bad mother, or they'll scare other kids, or whatever. But here. Here is safe. What a great great thing.

4. Build up a little community of like-minded, similarly-situated people.

5. Access to information about financial services (it's sponsored by a bank, after all) to aid with medical bills, or anticipating extra expenses, etc. etc. but that are relevant and practical.

My nephew isn't exactly autistic, but he is definitely special needs owing to a severe illness when he was very young. He's a SUPER awesome kid, as are his parents and his younger sister. And I'm so excited they get to do this every month. It only costs them the gas to get to the theater (which still can be a bit). And my parents join them, so here my niece and nephew get to spend quality time with their grandparents and everyone enjoys themselves.

Anyway, we went to see "Yogi Bear." And I learned a very important lesson about environment that day. Yogi Bear is not going to win any Academy Awards. I had very low expectations for it. And let me tell you ... I thoroughly enjoyed myself. If one is going to see a movie like Yogi Bear, and one is even a little less than excited about it, one should go see Yogi Bear with a theater of autistic children. It is not important to them how good the acting is, or the fact that the pie-in-the-face routine is the oldest in the book ... and the most clearly set up. The number of times the running gag is used is irrelevant; it's always funny. Every time. These kids laugh and respond and engage and enjoy themselves. That's what they're supposed to do. So instead of thinking about all the things I could be doing instead of sitting there "wasting my time" on such a "sub par" movie; I laughed and teared up at all the "right" places. And when it was over, it felt like time well spent. Worth every mile I put on the car to get there, to share that movie with those kids, and with my family.

My second story is: I watched a documentary about Isaac Stern tonight. And it was. So great! And it continued to cement in my head the importance of your surroundings. My roommate was downstairs practicing her little fingers off on the piano and that made me want to practice. Then I needed to work on reeds, so I put in this documentary and surrounded myself with this fantastic violinist, hearing his thoughts on music and life and how to balance and engage both and how he got where he did and his reflections on his experiences and lessons ... that made me want to work on reeds more, and I saw in him a person I'd like to be, and indeed a person I actually have the seeds to become. I saw similarities between the two of us. It was like finding a kindred spirit right there in this world class super-famous musician.

I find myself easily influenced by my surroundings and I suspect I'm not alone in that ... well, obviously not in my surroundings, else how would I be influenced?
A few of my coworkers curse fairly regularly to release tension at work, so I now curse more freely. Whatever. But when I'm home, we don't curse. So I don't curse. And it's not a concious decision, it's just the tone of the time. And when I work with one girl who sings a lot, I sing a lot. And when I work with the one who dances, I dance. And when I work with the one who judges, I judge. When I hang out with my musician friends, I geek out on music. When I hang out with my Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I support and am supported in life. When I am around someone who deeply engages and thinks about life, I do the same.

I encourage you to look at your surroundings and see what there is in them that causes you to be there. What do you see in them that reflects who you want to become? What do you see in yourself that is reflecting your surroundings? As the Switchfoot song says "This is your life, are you who you want to be?" That's why I moved to Cleveland in the first place; I wasn't becoming the person I wanted to be, or rather I was becoming a person I didn't want to be ... and it would be foolish to think I continue to do the same things, but expect different results; something would have to change. So look at yourself, then look around you. This is your life, are you who you want to be? Are you surrounding yourself with people reflective of who you'd like to be? Or does something need to change? Some things we don't have control over. That's okay. See these things and acknowledge them, then see if you can do something to alter your reaction to them, because that you do always have control over ... technically.

Always watch children's movies with children. They're like vitamins for your innocence.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Have you ever had those moments, when you've just seen or heard or experienced something that you just know has completely changed you. But you have no idea when or how or why or what in particular it is that's changed. And you don't know how to process it.
It's like this thing that's happened has made you feel everything you could possibly feel at once, but there's so much to feel that instead you just don't feel anything at all. Like you're numb, except that you're experiencing everything.
I'm sitting here just like that. Feeling that, experiencing that. I would say that I want to make art like that, but that may be a privilege given only to those God really loves, and it may be a privilege you only ever get once in a lifetime, if you ever get it. And I would say I want to only experience art like that, but then I maybe really would become numb to it. So instead I'll just say that I'm thankful for this one thing.

I just watched the movie "Waitress." And it is now my intention to tell every single person I know, or meet, or see, or happen to pass by, to watch this movie. When I finally fall asleep and when I wake up in the morning, I will have probably forgotten this resolution which is unfortunate, but for now. Just let me say this:

Go watch this movie. Rent it. Buy it. It's totally worth it. If you buy it and hate it, I will buy it back from you. If I know you.

I wonder if Heaven feels like this only deeper and more real? You know, when all of your sins are removed, and your heart of stone is turned to a heart of flesh, and finally. Finally. Everything is as it should be, and there is no longer anything terribly horribly wrong with the world. Finally everything has been set to rights. This is probably a lot like what it feels like. Or this is maybe the closest on Earth I'll ever come.

I hope you like this movie. I'll feel terrible for talking like this if you don't. But if you don't, then I'll just be satisfied that this was God's own love letter to me, reminding me that my soul is not dead or asleep, just on a journey, making its way home, but it has not forgotten ... and nor should I.